The Vatican has told the German Bishops’ Conference that a forthcoming meeting in Rome to discuss Germans’ concerns about the new instruction on parishes will not include laymen representing Germany’s “Synodal Way”.

A letter from Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, to the president of the German Bishops’ Conference Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg was leaked to the press and later correspondence was confirmed by a spokesman for the bishops’ conference on Oct. 26.

Cardinal Stella’s letter was written in response to Bishop Bätzing’s proposal in August that the executive committee of the Synodal Way be included in a meeting at the Vatican “since bishops, priests, deacons and laity are equally addressed in the instruction.”

Stella replied: "In view of the fact that this instruction, because of its nature, is primarily addressed to the bishops (cf. can. 34 § 1 CIC), at this stage I consider them to be the necessary interlocutors of this Congregation,” according to the German media outlet, Herder Korrespondenz.

The cardinal made it clear that in preparation for his eight-page letter he had “spoken to the Holy Father on September 7, 2020 about an appropriate response to the German bishops.”

Stella also responded to the criticism that has come from some German bishops of the instruction on parishes issued by his congregation in July: “The pastoral conversion of the parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church,” which underlined that according to canon law only priests can direct the pastoral care of parishes.

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, vice-president of the German bishops’ conference, described the instruction in July as a “strong brake on the motivation and appreciation of the services of lay people.”

Bode said he feared that the text indicated a “conversion to clericalization” because it emphasized the priest’s role in directing parishes.

In Stella’s most recent letter, the cardinal addressed this line of thinking: “Just as the bishops are attentive and jealous of the protection and respect of their prerogatives and rights, so it is just as right that they observe and recognize those canonical norms that concern the fields and competencies of the clergy, consecrated people and lay people.”

If and when the meeting between the Vatican and the German bishops is scheduled to take place is still unclear.

The new instructions on parish life, approved by Pope Francis, called the parishes of the Church around the world to an evangelizing mission.

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German language news partner, reported that some commentators saw the instruction as a response to plans to drastically reduce the number of parishes in German dioceses.

The Vatican recently blocked a plan by the Diocese of Trier to turn 800 parishes into 35. Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Freiburg has said that it will press ahead with plans to reduce its 1,000 parishes to 40.

The document provoked a mixed reaction in Germany. While Bishop Bode spoke critically of the parish instruction, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt expressed their gratitude for the text.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, meanwhile, defended the Vatican intervention, saying: "The German criticism completely misses the actual concern of the instruction: the pastoral conversion to a missionary footing. But precisely this basic concern of Pope Francis would be highly topical in view of the disturbing recently published numbers of departures from the Church."

He was referring to statistics issued last month which showed that a record number of Catholics left the Church in Germany in 2019.